An Economic Allegory?

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

ivan repila

At 110 pages, this short novel in the Pushkin Press Collection is easily read in one session. Once grabbed by this powerful story I wasn’t going to put the book down until I’d finished it.

It concerns two brothers, who are only known as Big and Small appropriately to their comparative sizes. They are trapped at the bottom of a well which, like a mould for an iceberg, is wider under the surface the further it goes down. Their attempts to climb out fail; Big tries to throw Small up and over, this doesn’t work either. No-one hears their cries, despite the well being not far from the path. Will they ever get out, or will they die down there?

The days go on, they survive on worms, maggots and the earthy water from the sludge, portioned as per their size. Big keeps up his exercise regime. Small gets thin, sickly, and feverish but does recover a little. Big admonishes him for not eating.

‘You should eat even if you aren’t hungry.’
‘I’ll eat whem I’m hungry. I’ll drink when I’m thirsty. I’ll shit when I feel like shitting. Like dogs do.’
‘We aren’t dogs.’
‘In here we are. Worse than dogs.’


‘I think I’ve got rabies,’ he says.
‘No. You don’t have rabies yet.’
Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.

The days go by and Small starts raving, making up tales including one that he was ‘the boy who stole Attila’s horse’. Big keeps up his regime. It gets harder and harder to find food, and all the time they have had a carrier of bread and cheese they were bringing back for their mother by their side – now beyond eating. The days carry on, Small gets ever-weaker. Big does his best to keep him alive…

This story is so Grimm – it is really a modern fairy tale. The boys’ struggle is told unsparingly in its detail in Sophie Hughes’ translation from the Spanish, from the taste of maggots to their physical state, yet it is not until near the end that we find out what happened. The brothers’ love for each other shines through, although there are some truly dark moments. On this level it is a compelling and touching tale with some flashes of humour just when you thought it was getting too black.

Where I had problems with it though was as an economic allegory of the state of Europe – that’ll teach me to read the publisher’s blurb just before I start a novel!  Indeed the whole book is prefaced with a rather nasty epigraph from Margaret Thatcher (and another by Bertold Brecht). It wasn’t until I read John Self’s excellent review at Asylum that I was able to formulate my thoughts in this regard: The hole or void is pyramid shaped – the boys are at the bottom where they are literal and metaphorical have nots. It would take a miracle for them to reach the surface where they’d join the haves – but how do you climb out of a void?  That’s my take, but I’m not sure I’d have got the economic allegory, even noting the quote from Thatch, if I hadn’t been pre-warned.

This strange little fable was definitely well worth reading for the writing is fine indeed. It’s Repila’s second novel; the first to be translated into English – it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Collection)by Iván Repila, 2013 trans Sophie Hughes 2015. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 110 pages.

A contemporary take on the myth of Athena

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

The-Helios-DisasterTranslated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. … He looks at me. At my shining armour. … Lean against him. His arms, which embrace me. We cry together. … I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of this heart. I have a father. I am my father’s daughter. These words ring through me like bells in that instant.
Then he screams.
His scream tears everything apart. I will ever again be close to him Never again rest my head against his chest. We have met and must immediately part.

In Greek myth, Athena, one of the Olympian goddesses, is born of no mother. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestus to split his head open.  Out pops Athena – emerging fully formed in her armour.  However, this is modern-day Sweden and the ground is covered with snow. The girl who is twelve sheds her armour and leaves the house – the neighbours take charge of her.  They won’t believe that Conrad is her father. ‘Conrad is bit different, after all.’  She’s taken in by social services and given a name – Anna Bergstrom.

Then they find her a family. They already had two boys and had always wanted a girl. Sven and Birgitta live with their teenaged sons Urban and Ulf in a village of teetotallers and a Pentecostal church. ‘Most people were in both.’  Birgitta tries to involve Anna in family life, but Anna spends more time with Urban who persuades her to start speaking in tongues in church. Eventually she ends up being committed.  All the time, she dreams of her father – she’d been sending secret letters to Conrad. She’s desperate to find him again and to run away with him…

This is a strange story. Naturally it requires a suspension of belief to believe that was how Anna is born, but the intensity of the telling is such that you’re readily absorbed into it. At 125 pages, it can easily be read in one session. I immersed myself without thinking too much until after I’d finished reading it.

When I had finished, I was full of questions.  Why did the author called it The Helios Disaster. If you read the book and then Google ‘Helios Disaster’ you’ll find the answer to that question.  I wanted to know too if Athena had anything to do with Helios in the Greek pantheon of gods? Helios was the Greek sun god, one of the Titans, he drives his chariot through the sky each day. Apart from them both appearing in Homer’s Odyssey, (and some computer games inspired by Homer!) along with practically all the other Greek gods, I couldn’t find anything to connect them in the myths of antiquity, the connection alluded to above appears to be of the author’s invention.

You’ve probably wondered if Linda Boström Knausgård is anything to do with Karl Ove Knausgård, the author of the autobiographical series of novels My Struggle. Yes, she is his wife.  I did chuckle once during this novella – Birgitta takes Anna shopping in the city and Birgitta buys a book, ‘I’ll take one by our own … He’s just had a new one come out,‘ she said.  A little in-joke to acknowledge the publishing phenomenon he has become.

The Pentecostal community is an odd one too.  Glossolalia – or speaking in tongues – is an essential part of their way of worship.  In the book of Acts in the Bible, it tells about the Apostles speaking in tongues, where each person there heard their own tongue being spoken – it’s rather the opposite with Anna … less being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather something altogether more ancient and Olympian.

No-one understands Anna, neither her foster family nor her doctors. She, our narrator, tries to fit in and sometimes, just fleetingly, she feels part of the family, but always she ultimately holds back thinking of her father.

The author is also a poet, and that shows in the short sentences and rhythm of the text, preserved in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation.  I always enjoy reading modern retellings and reimaginings of old myths; The Helios Disaster is a challenging and thought-provoking example. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate links), please click below:
The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård. Pub Feb 2015 by World Editions. Paperback original, 125 pages.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard) by Karl Ove Knausgård


The Pleasure of Vicarious Reading …

I promise I’ll have a book review for you very soon – honest!  Until then, I thought I’d natter about something that occurred to me the other day.  This was after I’d commented on Jane’s best of 2014 post which she styled as A Box of Books for 2014, and her reply to me.

box-of-books-1350400193I said, “Your box is delightful – a super concept, and chock-full of wonderful reading – the only one I’ve read is Jonathan Strange, but I’ve enjoyed reading your reviews of all the others and am sure I’ll read some of them in the future.”

Jane replied, “That’s one of the joys of blogging – I’ve enjoyed lots of your reviews of books I might like but may not have time to read in a single lifetime.”

Jane and I don’t often read the same books. She is one of many bloggers who review books that I will probably never read myself, but I do get a lot of pleasure from reading her reviews.  This is also the case for many of the blogs in my blogroll on the sidebar, (plus many others in my bookmarks and reader).

This vicarious pleasure helps me to get to know authors before I read them, learn a lot about what they wrote (very good for quizzes!) and, perhaps most importantly helps me to decide whether I may want to read the books in question. This naturally extends to all those blogs whose authors read more of the same books as me, (again, lots on the sidebar).

Getting to know another blogger’s personality from the books they read and how they write about them is a wonderful thing. And then you can explore their own blogrolls and discover even more wonderful blogs full of interesting people writing interesting things about interesting books and authors.

Exploring the book-blogosphere can be rather like discovering an ‘Unknown Unknown’ in a bookshop (see here).

I realise that I’m digressing from an initial point of vicariously exploring and enjoying books I know I won’t read through other bloggers’ writing about them, into a celebration of book-bloggers in general, but what the heck – I think we all need a pat on the back sometimes.

So – Thank you to all the bloggers who provide me with hours of wonderful reading about their own worlds of books and who inspire and educate my own reading. 

Here’s to a great year of reading – both books and blogs!

Reading Chekhov plays on the page for book group

Anton_Chekhov_with_bow-tie_sepia_imageAbout once a year, our book group feels adventurous and decides to read a play rather than a novel or non-fiction title.  Last year we read The Weir by Conor McPherson which was rather wonderful. This year we decided to plump for some Chekhov and as the plays are short to read we picked The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard, and as a bonus threw in Ward 6 (Alex’s favourite) for anyone who had access to his short stories as a contrast.

Now I saw and remember enjoying an RSC production of The Seagull in 1991 at the Barbican with Simon Russell-Beale in his breakthrough serious role as Constantin, Amanda Root as Nina, Roger Allam as Trigorin and the late Susan Fleetwood as Irina (Arkadina). Russell-Beale said of this production:

seagullI had the most wonderful time in Stratford. It was very formative and a very important part of my life. They were very good because I started off as a comic actor and Terry Hands picked me out to do a Chekhov play, The Seagull and that changed the whole course of my life”. (full interview at the British Theatre Guide)

The Seagull was Chekhov’s second great play (1896), and it was the first to flaunt Chekhov’s modernistic devices and also has a small play within a play. As it starts, Constantine Treplev and his uncle Sorin are discussing a little play starring neighbour Nina (with whom Treplev is in love) for when his mother arrives at her brother Sorin’s country estate. Treplev is worried that Irina won’t like the play…

Treplev: [Laughs] You see, Mother doesn’t love me – to put it rather mildly. She likes excitement, romantic affairs, gay clothes – but I’m twenty-five years old and a constant reminder that she’s not so young as she was. She’s only thirty-two when I’m not around, but when I’m with her she’s forty-three, and that’s what she can’t stand about me. Besides, she knows I’ve no use for the theatre. She adores the stage.

Yeah! Like you wrote a play which will be performed specifically for her approval. Grow up Treplev and stop moaning.

The problems really become apparent when young Nina falls for Boris Trigorin, Irina’s current squeeze who has come with her – he’s a famous writer. This, together with Irina’s flighty luvviness is enough to eventually send lovesick Treplev over the edge in an off-stage melodramatic denouement in the final act.

I can’t say that The Seagull leapt off the page for me, despite having seen it – and I can’t remember the actual shooting of the Seagull, a heavy-handed metaphor if ever there was one, in the play at all!

So on to The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s last great play (1904) and we have a crumbling country estate in which they are having to sell off the much-loved cherry orchard to make ends meet and which no doubt someone will parcel up into smaller plots.  The family all arrive from the station for one last gathering before the sale.

It starts off with everyone talking about different things at the same time:

Gayev: The train was two hours late. Pretty good, eh? What price that for efficiency?
Charlotte: (The Governess) [to Pishchik (an estate-owner)] My dog eats nuts too.

… and it continues for virtually the whole play in this vein.  There is a slight narrative drive, but it’s mostly the family bickering or talking over each other, with some moments of melodrama to punctuate the conversations…

Varya: Two telegrams came for you, Mother. [Picks out a key and unlocks the fold-fashioned book-case with a jingling noise.] Here you are.
Mrs. Ranevsky: They’re from Paris. [Tears them up without reading them.] I’ve finished with Paris.

Admittedly, she did have a hard time in Paris being abandoned by her lover.

There was more to enjoy in The Cherry Orchard than The Seagull.  Gayev, who is Mrs. Ranevsky’s older brother is always going off into little reveries about billiards in the middle of his speeches, ‘Pot the red in the middle.’ (reminding me of Ron Manager in The Fast Show – ‘jumpers for goalposts’). I also liked Firs, the old retainer who is about eighty and ‘ready to die’ – in fact I preferred all the servants in general to the land-owning families in both plays.

OWC ChekhovChekhov’s striving for a modern, naturalistic way of speaking in his plays didn’t work on the page for any of us in our book group. They’re ensemble pieces with no one character dominating for the most part, and that adds to the rambling feel.

I had expected the plays to comment more on their subject matter – particularly, to misquote Jonie Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, the potential ‘paving of paradise’ if the cherry orchard was uprooted and parcelled off. However, that didn’t happen, life just went on, no opinions as such were aired.

I had opted to read Ronald Hingley’s translations from the mid-1960s for Oxford World’s Classics, which are ‘acclaimed for the accuracy and ‘speakability’ of the translations.’  We all read different editions, but essentially had the same reactions to the texts.

However, those that had access to his short stories, sadly not including me, reported that Ward 6 was great and very different to the plays.

Chekhov was renowned as a short story writer, so I shall definitely search some out to read in the future.  As for his plays – it’ll be the theatre for me!


Happy Easter

As my daughter is spending the rest of Easter with her father, we did our Easter Eggs on Good Friday. I hid loads of little ones all around the house in places that the cats couldn’t get to, and that kept her occupied for ages finding them – with additional cryptic clues from me for those last few difficult ones – we do this every year, and the challenge is to think of some new places!  Juliet also did a little treasure hunt with riddles for me, with some Malteaster bunnies and mini-eggs at the end of it – Yum, yum.

Happy Easter everyone.

The Liebster Award

Karen at Miss Darcy’s Library nominated me for the Liebster Award (German for dearest or beloved), given and passed on by bloggers to blogs that are newer to them. In this meme you answer seven questions put to you by your nominator, then compile your own seven questions and tag some other blogs to pass it on to. I particularly like the fact that you are encouraged to publicise blogs that are new to you in this meme.

Here are my answers to Karen’s questions…

1. What is your favourite reading spot?
At the moment it’s in bed – first thing in the morning and last thing at night. However I do lust after a giant armchair – one big enough to put my feet up on – the Conran Matador one in red (right) would be perfect.

2. What do you think of movie adaptations of famous books? Do they enhance or hinder your appreciation of the book?
I tend to be of the persuasion that generally prefers to read the book first, then see the film or programme, so my own vision of it is not influenced.  But, if the adaptation is classy and the casting good – it can enhance a later reading.  Reading   the Harry Potter books for instance, was more fun after the films started (mostly due to the wonderful Alan Rickman as Snape), similarly Colin Firth is now forever Mr Darcy…

3. Has a book ever made you want to travel to a particular place?
A single book, probably not.  But with each book set in Venice I read and there are many, the desire to visit the city grew and grew. We went about six years ago, and loved it – I should probably return soon.  I treasure the little drawing my daughter did (left) – she was 6 then – what perspective!

4. What is your reaction when someone you know dislikes a book you are especially fond of? Have you ever quarrelled over a book?
Ha ha. It depends on who’s doing the disagreeing!  We’ve had some really great discussions at our book group over books that divided the group. Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night was one which I adored, and others hated – but the discussion was good, and it’s still a personal favourite.

5. Do you like knowing all about an author before you start reading their work or do you think biographical details aren’t necessary to understand and appreciate a book?
I always read the author biog and look at their photo if there is one because I’m nosy, and it’ll usually give little hints to their areas of expertise and interests which make reading the book more interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily check them out any further before reading, but I often look them up after finishing the book if I enjoyed it though.

6. In your opinion, what makes an excellent book review?
Ooh – that’s difficult. It very much depends on whether what I already know about the book/author, and very importantly, who’s doing the reviewing.  I need to get a feel for the book: its broad themes, major characters, main plotline direction, but I don’t need much detail, the right feel is enough.  However I do need confidence in the reviewer, be it another blogger, writer or critic – that’s something you build up as you get used to their style.

7. And just for fun: Mr Darcy or Mr Rochester?  Darcy = Colin Firth – nuff said!

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That was really fun, and made me think – thanks Karen. Now it’s my turn to ask the questions…

  1. Does blogging every get in the way of reading for you, or does it enhance it?
  2. How often do you re-read books, and which have you re-read the most?
  3. Are there genres of writing that you won’t read?
  4. When you go on holiday do you take a holiday from reading, or is your case full of books?
  5. How do you shelve your books: alphabetically, fic and non-fic, or by theme etc?
  6. Tell me about an author you’ve recently discovered (whether new or old), and want to read much more of.
  7. … and finally for fun, what books do you want for Christmas

I’m going to tag a few bloggers whose blogs I’ve discovered this year and am enjoying.  There is absolutely no compulsion to do the meme or pass it on – unless you want to that is, so I nominate Page Plucker, The Book Trunk, Alex in Leeds, Heavenali and The Book Boy. Anyone is welcome to have a go too if they wish, and do go visit the blogs I’ve nominated, they’re all great.

…and the winner is:

Firstly a big thank you to everyone who visited my blog during the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop this week. Special thanks to all those who’ve subscribed or are following.

Now to the giveaway results – I employed my proven method of cutting all the names up and getting my 11yr old daughter to pick the winners, who are …

Ellie Potten & Nicole Sender

I will email you for your adresses and send you one of these fab (5 star for me) books


The winners are …

Thank you very much to everyone who stopped by to wish my blog a happy third birthday, and left me with some great reading suggestions – all appreciated.

Now to my giveaway. There are three of the best books I’ve read during the three years of my blog on offer…

I employed the services of my daughter as chief picker-outer of names and the three winners are:

JuxtabookKerry Carola

Well done! I’ll be in contact soon to get your addresses and choice of book.